I don’t think anyone will argue that the NBA playoff intensity was alive and well in the bubble last year. There were fantastic games that came down to clutch moments, and there were underdog teams like Miami making a run all the way to the Finals. It was everything on the court you could hope for. Given the circumstances, the NBA was the first model of how to effectively play a season during a pandemic, and it went well. This year though, without The Bubble, the playoffs will have one element that The Bubble was sorely missing — fans.
The regular season is coming to a close in a little over a week, meaning every game from here on in will have a great sense of urgency. With the introduction of the Play-In Tournament, teams are frantically trying to secure a top-6 seed to get their spot without having to contend with the extra round. Tonight’s game between the Lakers and Blazers is one of those games, with the two clubs tied with the same record, and tied for the sixth seed. This game is huge.
The Blazers have been one of only two teams in the NBA to continue to have no fans in attendance, with the other being Chicago. Other than that, every franchise has had fans in some capacity, ranging from 10 percent to 35 percent, in the building. Superstar guard and should-be-MVP Damian Lillard recently voiced his desire for Rip City to be in attendance.
He’s not wrong. Heading into the playoffs, it would be a stark competitive advantage for an opponent getting to play their games at home with their fans, and on the road in Portland where there are none. Thankfully, Portland listened. One day after Dame made his plea on Twitter, the Blazers announced that they will welcome 10 percent fan capacity back to the arena for the first time this year, starting tonight against the Los Angeles Lakers.
I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but Portland hates L.A. Blazers fans, who typically pack every home game, love few things more than booing their West Coast rivals after years of watching the Lakers come into the Rose Garden (get out of here with the “Moda Center,” I’ll never call it that) and hand it to them during the peak of the Kobe/Shaq era. Chants of “BEAT L.A.” are a customary occurrence, starting outside as the fans walk through the streets of Portland on their way to the stadium, and continuing throughout the entire game.
Tonight’s game will be the start of what finally feels like playoff basketball, as the Blazers become the last playoff-bound team to welcome fans back into the experience. The intensity and familiar feeling will only rise over the next month, as playoff basketball regains its soundtrack — the fans.